UW News

April 4, 2022

Q&A: From the Philippines to the US, analyzing a global political shift to the right

A flag of the Phillipines waving in front of a blue sky

In his book “The Sovereign Trickster,” University of Washington history professor Vicente L. Rafael documents the rule of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.Pixabay

In writing his latest book, Vicente L. Rafael set out to make sense of an ongoing global shift to the political right.

Rafael, professor of history at the University of Washington, called 2016 a turning point. In the United States, the evidence was the election of former President Donald Trump — a result that stunned many U.S. citizens. But that shock didn’t extend to the Philippines, where Rafael was born.

Due to the neocolonial relationship between the two countries, Rafael said what happens in one resonates in the other. The U.S., which colonized the Philippines from 1898 until 1941, typically sets the tone. But Rodrigo Duterte’s assent to the presidency of the Philippines preceded Trump’s election.

Duterte, Rafael said, bears many similarities to authoritarians that have emerged in other countries, but he also differs from them. In Rafael’s book “The Sovereign Trickster,” published by Duke University Press, he writes specifically about Duterte’s rule.

Rafael frames Duterte as a “trickster figure who boasts, jokes, terrorizes, plays the victim and instills terror.” His book examines multiple aspects of Duterte’s rule, including the war on drugs, extrajudicial killings, human rights violations and neoliberal citizenship, emphasizing the colonial and counterinsurgent context of his emergence. Rafael also examines Duterte’s popularity and “political aesthetics”: his vernacular style of storytelling, his fondness for obscenity and his misogyny as ways of fostering community among his supporters.

UW News sat down with Rafael to discuss the swing to the right, the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines and what to watch for in the Philippine presidential election in May and the U.S. midterm elections.

Q: How did the relationship between the United States and the Philippines manifest in 2016?

VR: Duterte presented himself as a “revolutionary nationalist” when he won, which meant, among other things, that he was anti-American imperialism. This gave him an excuse to denounce U.S. criticisms of his war on drugs along with his violation of human rights.

He used profanity to describe former President Barack Obama and the U.S. ambassador and threatened to end U.S. military partnerships with the Philippine military. This anti-imperialist stance was a ruse since he allowed the Chinese wide latitude in operating in the South China Sea and actively solicited Chinese aid. He even joked at one point that China should just annex the Philippines and admired the authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Q: What similarities do you draw between authoritarian leaders?

VR: All authoritarians share a common hatred of democracy and will do everything to manipulate its forms in order to destroy its substance.

They take exception to the law and see themselves as above it, which allows them to abolish any semblance of checks and balances among the branches of government. The wide and systemic use of the military and the police allows them to govern by fear and quash dissent. Propaganda and “fake news” are deployed to shape popular perceptions about supporters and vilify enemies.

Authoritarians designate part of the population as deserving of entitlements, while designating another part of the population — commonly Jewish, Black, queer, homeless, poor and Muslim people — as abject, undeserving, inherently criminal, subhuman and therefore existential threats to society. These people are targeted for expulsion, exile and incarceration, and ultimately neglect and death. This makes all authoritarian states essentially racist states.

These rulers rely on various corrupt methods to accumulate personal wealth. They surround themselves with cronies who do favors, funnel deals and protect them from investigations. There is no authoritarian state that is not also a state steeped in corrupt practices.

Q: You write about how Duterte and other modern rulers use the relationship between life and death. Can you explain what that means?

VR: Duterte, like many authoritarian rulers, uses the politics of life — seeking to provide citizens with life that is more than life by way of social services, public education and health, security, etc. — by way of administering death. Here, rulers seek to define and apprehend those it regards as social enemies by systemically neglecting them, placing them in positions of social or actual death insofar as they present an existential threat to society.

Duterte does this through his war on drugs. He sees drug users and dealers ­— he makes no distinction between the two — not only as criminals but also as insurgents who seek to destroy the social order. They deserve to be annihilated. By killing them, he also instills fear in the people who are then forced to acknowledge his power. In this way, he governs life by administering death. He provides the illusion of security using fear.

Q: What’s at stake as we look ahead to the 2022 presidential election in the Philippines and the midterm elections in the U.S.?

VR: The elections in the Philippines in May 2022 present us with two possibilities. There could be a dramatic shift in governing styles in the Philippines should one of the candidates, the current Vice President Leni Robredo, win. However, there could also be a continuation and intensification of what some have called “Dutertismo” — the style of rule under Duterte — should the other candidate, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and his vice presidential running mate, Sarah Duterte, Duterte’s daughter, triumph. Polls currently favor the latter by a considerable margin, though Robredo has recently been surging.

Should Marcos Jr. and Sarah Duterte win, it would mean the continuation of some sort of authoritarian rule. Marcos Jr. would surround himself with many of Duterte’s people and continue many of his policies, including the war on drugs. He would also bring back many cronies of his father, former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who engaged in torture and stole millions from the nation’s coffers. The U.S. would have to deal with country’s continuing corruption and unrelenting violations of human rights, not to mention the Chinese incursions into the South China Sea that Marcos Jr. would continue to allow.

A Robredo victory would not necessarily end corruption but would at least temper it. She would return a semblance of good government and would be far more responsive to natural disasters. She would seek to control the police and put an end to extrajudicial killings. As a human rights lawyer, Robredo would also seek to protect the rights of workers and Indigenous peoples, among others. She would modulate relations with the U.S., depending on who is in power in the U.S. after 2022 and 2024.

To put it differently, a Robredo presidency would go a long way towards restoring democratic norms and practices. But given the dismal drift of U.S. politics toward Republican authoritarianism, it might not meet with much support from the U.S. The two countries might very well be moving in opposite directions. Under Robredo, the Philippines would stand as a stark rebuke to the U.S. under the extreme right wing of the Republican party. A Republican-dominated regime would find more things in common with Marcos Jr. and Duterte, such as their love of power and pursuit of personal wealth.

For more information, contact Rafael at vrafael@uw.edu.